World
Devastating flames took the island of Maui by surprise
By Li Wenhan  ·  2023-08-28  ·   Source: NO.35 AUGUST 31, 2023
A picture of darkness and destruction following the devastating wildfires on Maui Island, Hawaii, the United States, on August 10 (XINHUA)

When Chun Fan and his friends arrived in Maui, Hawaii, from the U.S. mainland on August 5, they were ready for a sun-soaked stay in tropical paradise. Over the two days that followed, they enjoyed the soft sands, cruised along picturesque coastal highways and savored the highly Instagrammable sights and servings of local restaurant Monkeypod Kitchen by Merriman.

Never could they have imagined how abruptly their journey into bliss would be set ablaze.

"As I gazed at the stars from my balcony on August 7, I could feel the wind picking up," Chun told Beijing Review. "This persisted well into the next morning, alongside an unsettling shroud of heavy smoke on the horizon. And then the electricity went out."

Electricity and mobile network services remained suspended through the afternoon. As dusk fell, Chun witnessed in the distance an inferno casting its ominous glow across the sky.

Chun was staying at a hotel along Maui's western coast, a mere 5 km from the most devastated area, Lahaina.

After visiting the wreckage of Lahaina, Hawaii's Governor Josh Green called the Maui fires the "largest natural disaster Hawaii has ever experienced" at a news conference on August 12. He said around 2,200 structures had been destroyed or damaged and total losses "approach $6 billion."

Reduced to ashes

As of August 21, the fires had claimed the lives of 115 people and 13 families had been notified of the deaths of the individuals who had been identified, the Maui Police Department said in a news release.

Steven Merrill, special agent in charge of the Federal Bureau of Investigation's Honolulu division, said at a news briefing on the afternoon of August 22 that the number of people "reported unaccounted for" was between 1,000 and 1,100. The day before, Maui County Mayor Richard Bissen had stated the number of missing people was believed to be around 850.

Many Maui residents recalled having to flee their homes. Dustin Kaleiopu told NBC News the fire was moving so fast he and his family had just "minutes to escape" their home before it was consumed by flames.

In an interview with China Central Television on August 23, Lapsodi Lunes, another resident, said the government's paralysis after putting out the first round of wildfires on the morning of August 8 had delayed the best time for residents to evacuate.

By 9 a.m. on August 8, Maui officials declared the fire "100 percent contained" and the firefighters left the area. But around 2 p.m. that same day, the same area reignited, smoke and embers being carried toward residential areas as howling winds continued to lash the island.

"Now the Internet is still out and the entire community remains without power," Lunes continued. "The government is here, but they don't accept help from the outside; they even closed the port so we can't go there for help either. We have to survive on our own."

The Lahaina fire burned an estimated 878.2 hectares, according to the Maui County Government on August 21, with 10 percent of the fire still uncontained at the time.

Kaleiopu said when he returned to the town on August 10, it was gone, and his world as he knew it had changed. "In 36 hours, our town was reduced to ashes. There's nothing left," he added.

An aerial image that made front pages around the world, taken on August 10, showed the streets of Lahaina after the fire. Houses lay smashed, walls crumbled and roofs collapsed; trees burned to the ground. The entire image cloaked in a heavy black.

"As we made our way to the airport, the whole town of Lahaina seemed to have been steamrolled," Chun recalled. On August 10, evacuation buses with police escorts took tourists to the airport. A large crowd had gathered there and it took Chun 40 minutes to rebook his flight and an additional three hours to check in.

A vehicle completely destroyed by flames sits on what was once a residential driveway in the town of Lahaina, Maui Island, on August 14 (XINHUA)

Back to the beginning

August is Hawaii's typical dry season, with certain areas of the island experiencing unusually severe droughts. According to the U.S. Drought Monitor, nearly 16 percent of Maui County was experiencing severe droughts as of August 8. Lahaina, located on the more arid, leeward side of the island, tends to receive less rainfall.

A confluence of factors intensified the wildfires, Kelsey Copes-Gerbitz, a fire ecologist and social scientist from the Canadian University of British Columbia, told Beijing-based newsweekly Lifeweek. "These factors included dry conditions in Hawaii, strong hurricanes and flammable non-native grasses," she said.

The drought made the area more susceptible to wildfires by drying out non-native grasses on abandoned farm fields. That means that whatever started the fires in the first place quickly ignited the parched vegetation. And persistent strong winds in turn pushed the flames toward communities, in some cases forcing residents to flee into the Pacific Ocean. Many of them had to wait for hours before the Coast Guard was able to get to them.

Around 5 a.m. on August 8, some residents of Lahaina shot a video that seemed to confirm the fires were caused by damaged power lines.

A growing number of Lahaina residents affected by the disaster are pointing the finger of blame at Hawaiian Electric Co., criticizing the company for failing to heed warnings and plan for power outages during peak winds. The U.S. National Weather Service had issued a warning on August 7, stating that "strong winds combined with low humidity and an abundance of dry, flammable vegetation can increase the risk of wildfires."

Behind the scenes

In addition to the criticism of the local power sector, residents have also blamed the government for failing to provide adequate warnings. As wildfires consumed Lahaina, Hawaii's siren warning system remained eerily quiet. Hotel manager Kawena Kahula told CBS News that she "blindly drove" to Lahaina in a desperate search for her family, but didn't receive any warning from authorities that the fire was approaching.

With more than 400 emergency sirens located throughout Hawaii, this statewide system is said to be the largest integrated emergency siren network in the world. Its purpose is to alert residents to natural disasters, such as tsunamis or wildfires, or manmade threats. It includes 80 alarms in Maui County, many in and around Lahaina.

In the aftermath of the disaster, officials have offered several explanations amid growing public frustration: The sirens were broken. They weren't activated. They would have led people into danger, not away from it. And so on.

When asked during a press conference on August 16 if he regretted not sounding the alarms, Maui Emergency Management Agency Administrator Herman Andaya said, "I do not." He further told reporters that the sirens are used primarily for tsunami warnings.

"The public is trained to seek higher ground in the event that the siren is sounded. Had we sounded the siren that night, we feared people would have gone mauka (meaning toward the mountainside)," he said. "And if they had done so, they would have walked straight into the fire."

Citing "health reasons," Andaya later resigned, Maui County Mayor Richard Bissen announced the following day.

Local residents are now turning to each other to lend a helping hand, from delivering food to collecting donations, as they begin to pick up the pieces.

(Print Edition Title: Wildfire Challenges)

Copyedited by Elsbeth van Paridon

Comments to liwenhan@cicgamericas.com

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